An Apology for the Blessed Inconveniences of Common Life Together
by the Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle ‘04
Dean and President, General Seminary
“Faithfulness rarely feels heroic; it feels much more like showing up and hanging in.”
- Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer
When I think about my mother, I often remember sitting with her in our old Dodge Polara in an unending series of errands around St. Petersburg, Florida. I was eight-years-old, and remember wishing we had leather seats rather than vinyl. It was always hot in St. Pete. “Why are my parents so cheap about cars?” I would think. But just then, Mom fiddles with my hair and uses a saliva-moistened Kleenex to clean something off my face. I look up from my shoes to see her smiling face with the mid-afternoon sun behind her. Out of the most ordinary moment, I am reminded that I am loved. Fifty-years later, the moment remains as strong and present as it ever was.
My memory’s choice of this moment, over other seemingly more exciting moments, surprises me. I know that we had tons of family trips. Some, I remember directly. Others, I only know that I attended because I see myself in posed pictures at places I should have remembered. Why does my conscious memory choose a moment in the midst of routine errands to communicate my mother’s love and affection?
In submission to our anxious schedules, we offer our most genuine attempts to “squeeze in quality time” of one type or another into stolen moments. Nevertheless, we find that a little quality time is, unfortunately, no substitute for quantity time. That’s right: quantity time. Silicon Valley has discovered many things that can be automated and digitized, but for better or worse, love is not one of them.
Those aspiring to loving relationships, be it with family or God, must be prepared for lavishly inefficient uses of large amounts of time. Moreover, they must be prepared for society’s rebuke of quantity time as improvident, “Wouldn’t one of the many hours you spent in chapel this week be better spent doing…” However, the poet, Mary Oliver, elevates quantity time in her poem, “The Summer Day,” with the final line:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Ironically, graduation speakers (and yes, some preachers, alike) misapply this line of her poem to advance the very culture of ambition that breeds a society of disconnected anxiety – precisely what she is attacking. She is not asking the same question that society asks. Her final line is not akin to: “How do you plan to justify your existence with worthy accomplishments.” After all, she just spent a third of the poem dilly-dallying with a single, particular grasshopper. Seeming to grow indignant with the assumed criticism in her choice of time, she continues:
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
So when the reader arrives at her final lines, she completely attacks the implied rebuke of her quantity time. Rather than repentant to society’s expectations, she is accusatory.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
The seemingly unremarkable use of her time spent paying attention, developing gratitude, and appreciating God’s creation distinctly resembles prayer. But I should also clarify that “quantity time” is not synonymous with contemplative practices and spiritual retreats. Think about the moment when my mom and I were linked in endless errands. Whereas quality time is efficient, quantity time may have less glamorous results. Whereas a moment of quality time promises you fulfillment, a moment of quantity time is driven by your faithfulness.
In The Practice of Prayer, Margaret Guenther argues that, “your kitchen will teach you everything” in chapter six, “Finding God in the Ordinary.” Guenther, the noted director of the Center for Christian Spirituality at General Seminary, writes about spiritual discipline in a helpfully plainspoken way, likening spirituality to housework and other chores. “Our task…is to grow in awareness of the God-component in our everyday life.”
The task of “formation” at General Seminary is to make life in Christ ordinary. Expected. Routine. And it takes a significant amount of quantity and quality time, both. From a wider angle, we seek to consciously bring God with us wherever we go throughout the hours of the day. Through the sheer investment of time, Christians walk on the street that Jesus walks on and live in the neighborhood where the Holy Spirit resides. Developing that grander plan of “living in Christ,” which sounds unmistakably like quality time, usually appears in day-to-day existence like mere quantity time.
The paradox we are offered is that quantity time is often the most tedious, but also the most important part of seminary. Try as we might, we cannot and will not rush certain things to our own will and bend spiritual development to a more optimized timeline.
We go to chapel, not only during the pomp of Matriculation, but also during the slog of rainy, blustery Novembers. Twice a day! During each lunch, we break bread with people we may disagree with in the refectory, when we would rather talk with those who echo or enable us. We walk into classrooms where it feels like professors are challenging important aspects of our beliefs, and maybe even some of the very beliefs that brought us here in the first place. Quantity time often breeds frustration, in parishes and seminaries alike. And this frustration is further fueled by the imperfection of human relationships that are created in common life together. But it is actually in the midst of these challenges when enlightenment and growth occur. Of course, the church display sign with the message: “St. Anne’s: Often dull and sometimes filled with people that annoy you” attracts few, even of the most faithful.
Like wandering Israelites in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, we gripe. The chapel service had flaws. I would have done that sermon differently. My classmate who always speaks and never listens is driving me nuts. The list goes on. Guenther reminds us, “We might have to learn the most difficult lesson about loving: how to accept the love of God, especially as it comes to us mediated through the fallible people who share our life.” What’s funny is that the grumblings we have are often accurate. The sermon really was a stinker. Your classmate may indeed lack sufficient self-awareness. Accurate as these criticisms may be, they are not sufficient justification for disengaging quantity time. You cannot make it up later with a little quality time.
And when we leave the Close, we go into East Harlem, the Upper East Side, or East Los Angeles where each person is handling their own issues that affect the very core of their being – sometimes exceptional, sometimes seemingly mundane. Can you show up for them? Will you have the capacity to love them and nurture them with all their flawed humanity and agitating foibles?
If anyone tries to tell you that seminary is easy, or that it can be done just as well and with greater efficiency through miraculous innovations that rely on brief periods of quality time that make quantity time redundant, they are wrong. Innovations and new technologies, like those we are supporting alongside Virginia Seminary with the TryTank can be helpful partners in formation, and I have great hope and assurance for them. The difference is that we cannot rely on one innovation or another to replace the blessed inconveniences of common life together. Technology is not the problem. The problem is that no human technology or innovation can be the solution. After all, the guiding light of technology is the elimination of quantity time.
Many of the most beautiful moments of life come as utter surprises. They are moments when quality and quantity time finally meet, and I imagine heaven somewhat that way too. But these moments cannot be planned. Try as we might, we cannot bend the Holy Spirit’s movements to a more convenient, truncated timetable that better suits our interests. Instead, these moments are gifts from God, nourishing the faithful through periods of consolation and desolation. Christian spirituality broadly, and more specifically, the task of formation at General Seminary relies on both quantity and quality time. Sometimes, worship feels like a chore. And while you cannot plan for the specific moment, I guarantee that it will arrive. Out of nowhere, in an off-key hymn with too many verses, sung with imperfect voices, the Holy Spirit will communicate with you God’s lavish and undeserved love.